Fantasy is Tough
I don’t like fantasy.
You heard me. I grew up reading Tolkein, CS Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and loving them. I remember absorbing the Pern books all out of order and visiting different libraries to try and track them down (yes, I know technically Pern isn’t magic, bear with me). I read all fourteen Oz books and many of the series by other authors after Baum was gone. I adored Robin McKinley’s books, especially Beauty, which has to be my favorite fairy-tale retelling to this day. As a older verging-on-adult reader I found Xanth, and the Princess Bride (the movie, the book is… odd), and someone insisted I read a copy of Magic Kingdom, For Sale.
And then after a long gap, I started to read fantasy again, at an age where I was aware of the underlying costs in life. As a kid, you’re used to things being handed to you. Food, shelter, clothing… by and large your parents give you those things. As an adult, you become aware of the sacrifices and trade-offs necessary to make those things happen. You might work at a job you hate, but it pays the bills. You might give up dreams, in order to make others happen. Fantasy, in this context, stopped working for me. I still wanted to read for escapism (actually, I really needed it those first few years of adulthood) but I needed that grit of reality to be in the story to swallow it.
Fantasy worlds where saying the right words and poof, magic happens! just didn’t sit well with me. If repeating bibbidy-bobbidy-boo can shoot fire from your fingertips, the human race would have been extinct with the first babblings of a baby. Worlds where all you need is a handy ley line, or a handful of pixie dust, or whatever the magical contrivance the author was using, left me cold. Worlds where everything was handily available, because magic! annoyed the heck out of me. And I read slush for a while, and there is only so much Tolkein pastiche one person can endure before drowning in it. I stopped reading anything that said fantasy on the cover.
I slowly came to a realization: that a lot of science fiction, purportedly, is fantasy. Pern, as above, and Star Wars, and Dune… there’s not enough science in them to make them anything but fantasy. They follow the fantasy tropes of being worlds caught in some medieval time-warp. I just got my copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to FantasyLand, and am delightedly chuckling over it, and remembering why I don’t like fantasy.
Except when I do. I’m capricious… But I love Terry Pratchett, and Jim Butcher, and having just finished Larry Corriea’s Hard Magic trilogy I am sad to know there is no more of it. I was introduced to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn with pleasure (and it’s not on my shelf, I think my eldest has it…). I just bought Zelazny’s Prince of Amber, and the Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett, although I haven’t had time to read them yet. I’ll fight anyone who says Glory Road by RAH isn’t about the best fantasy novel out there…
And I write fantasy. Pixie Noir is unadulterated fairy-tale stuff, as is Trickster Noir, which I finished (rough draft) earlier this week. I pulled Sasquatch, and ogres, and the Firebird, and Raven, all into this world I’m weaving. Vulcan’s Kittens, my first novel, is partly fantasy and partly science, with an explanation of Clarke’s Law for the younger generation who live with gadgets my great-grandparents were astonished by.
Magic done right can be marvelous. Sometimes, like with Sarah Hoyt’s or Amanda Green’s shifters, you never get an explanation of where it comes from. Shifters just are. With Terry Pratchett, the Tiffany Aching stories, beginning with the delightfully funny Wee Free Men, tell where the magic comes from, but in others of his books it is just there, part of the landscape. Im Pam Uphoff’s Outcasts and Gods series, it starts off science and becomes magical, but with a carefully explained system that does have costs, and limits, and I’ve been enjoying the books very much.
But flipping through the Tough Guide, I am reminded of why I don’t like fantasy. She says “The economy of Fantasyland is as full of holes as its Ecology,” and I am reminded of why I wrote my Pixie as having a job, and needing one. And part of his job is making sure predators don’t get out of hand. “Missing Heirs occur with great frequency.” Enough that if I see those two words in a blurb, I set the book gently down, and back away… I have a book on my desk that, in the back cover blurb, cheerfully and innocently includes (capitalization and all) ‘Dark Power,’ ‘Chosen One of Providence,’ and ‘Days of Judgement.’ I’m not looking forward to reading it. This list of top 100 Fantasy novels? I’ve read maybe 15-20 titles on it, and some of them remember with no pleasure at all.
There’s a line, somewhere, scratched faintly on a dungeon wall, no doubt, with the rats, and straw, and ‘scutterings’ in the dark to keep it company, between cliche and trope. Between ‘reader cookie’ and ‘oh, gawd, not again…’ Oh yeah… and if your story goes on, and on, and on… with no signs of ever ending, that’s another moment of backing away slowly trying not to make eye contact (I’m looking at you, wheel of time). How do you find that line? Well, I’m afraid it’s by paying attention, and reading rather a lot of fantasy, good and bad. You’ve only got a guttering candle stub in that dungeon to use to look, you know, and heaven help you if you drop it in the straw.